By: Rohan Upadhyay
The debate over legalizing marijuana has become a hot-button and commonly debated issue in the past few years since Colorado legalized weed in 2012.
Regardless of one’s personal stance, we should acknowledge that representatives in Washington are not having an honest conversation about how best to reduce drug abuse. The simple truth is that the “War on Drugs” is a product of corruption and didn’t come from actually trying to resolve the drug problem.
We must address that, since it began in 1971 under President Nixon, the War on Drugs has not significantly reduced drug abuse in this country. Rather, it’s the opposite — drug abuse and drug-related deaths have risen since the 1970s (source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute on Drug Abuse). Regardless of the factors at play, it’s clear that the current system — locking people up for possession of drugs — is not working.
But many of the politicians in Washington aren’t concerned with that. So what are they concerned about?
In the US, we have a combination of government-run prisons and private (for-profit) prisons.
But what are “for-profit prisons”?
The idea is that the government can save time, money, and resources by contracting corporations to run prisons. By working with corporations like the GEO Group, the Corrections Corporation of America, and Management and Training Corporation, the government unburdens itself. Thus, private prisons housed about 8.2% of the US prison population in 2017. That may sound small, but their influence is noteworthy.
Here’s the problem. By definition, a “for-profit” prison has an incentive to lock people up because they get paid on a per-inmate basis. It also encourages prisons to cut corners on staffing, training, guard salaries, food, rehabilitation programs, etc. Thus, prisoners have worse experiences, and drug offenders may not get treatment. A Department of Justice report found that private prisons have more incidents of assaults, uses of force, and lockdowns – living conditions in these facilities aren’t the best.
If a prison does its job properly, then we would rehabilitate (most) criminals and reduce the need for prisons. So these for-profit prisons should be working themselves out of business. But that contradicts the incentive structure. On the contrary, convicts in for-profit prisons are more likely to get arrested again than those in normal prisons.
For-profit prisons are motivated to continue locking people up; to ensure a constant flow of new inmates, they lobby the government for harsh criminal laws (such as on nonviolent drug offenses). From 2017–2019, for-profit prisons spent $3.1–3.8 million annually in lobbying. Thus, the government maintains harsh drug laws that put more people in prison.
An example of such a law would be a mandatory minimum sentence. For instance, if someone possesses a minimum amount of a drug, then they automatically receive a few years in prison, regardless of the circumstances.
Anyway, the result of the D.C. revolving door is that private prisons continue receiving inmates. In fact, private prisons disproportionately lock people up, according to the Sentencing Project:
“Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 39.3%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 7.8%.”
This is not surprising – private prisons are successfully improving their bottom line despite the public health and economic consequences of harsher drug laws. The public health consequences come from people going to jail rather than getting treatment for drug use, so people don’t get better. This is evident from CDC data: from 1999 to the present, drug-induced deaths have risen from 6.1 per 100,000 to 21.7 per 100,000. At the very least, harsh drug laws are not accomplishing the job of reducing drug usage.
But what are the economic consequences?
The Economic Effects of Legalizing Drugs
First, let’s discuss job creation. If drugs are legalized, then tons of businesses would arise to sell the substances. That means more money circulates and more jobs are created, so the economy is better off for it.
Take Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014. Since then, the industry has brought in $6.56 billion in revenue (that’s compared to Colorado’s GDP in Quarter 2 of 2019, which was about $388 billion).
Because of that growth, Colorado has 2,917 licensed businesses for the sale of marijuana, and the industry has so far employed 41,076 people. That may sound small compared to Colorado’s population of over 5 million, but it means a lot to the 41,000 people who now have jobs.
Second, let’s talk about tax collection. With legal businesses, the government can tax their revenue and potentially fund rehabilitation programs that would come with drug decriminalization along with funding other programs or balancing the budget.
In Colorado’s case, governor Jared Polis stated the following in a press release:
“This industry is helping grow our economy by creating jobs and generating valuable revenue that is going towards preventing youth consumption, protecting public health and safety and investing in public school construction.”
Colorado has generated over $1 billion from taxing marijuana revenue, which has funded the programs mentioned above (on a federal level, taxes could rehabilitation programs or safe injection sites).
Another note on taxes: the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that treating drug offenders costs less than it does to incarcerate them. So decriminalizing drugs could also save the taxpayer money in that respect.
The point is that marijuana legalization offers opportunities for small businesses and workers, but it is being stalled by large corporations’ lobbying. Politicians may be aware of this dynamic, but many (not all) are simply considered with maintaining the status quo for the sake of maintaining profits for the prison industry. We should acknowledge both the human and economic impact of the War on Drugs to have a more open conversation about how to proceed.